Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s nominal leader, will skip a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday amid a growing controversy over what U.N. high commissioner for human rights has said seems to be “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” against the country’s Rohingya minority.
The United Nations believes more than 370,000 Rohingya — Muslims who live in Buddhist-majority Myanmar’s western Rakhine State — have fled to neighboring Bangladesh since Aug. 25, when a militant group associated with the minority group attacked a series of military outposts.
Satellite photos appear to show the wholesale destruction of Rohingya villages in what the U.N. and groups such as Human Rights Watch say is retaliation carried out by Myanmar’s military.
Because of a provision in the country’s constitution, Suu Kyi does not have control over the military. Even so, Suu Kyi — a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent 15 years under house arrest for opposing Myanmar’s long-ruling military junta before winning a landslide election in 2015 — has insisted that unspecified “terrorists” and not the country’s military are targeting the Rohingyas.
As NPR’s Colin Dwyer writes, the stream of refugees crossing the border into Bangladesh have brought with them “[reports] of unbridled murder and arson, rape and persecution … sketching a stark portrait of government violence.”
The Associated Press reports that:
“The government blames Rohingya for the attacks, but journalists who visited the region found evidence that raises doubts about its claims that Rohingya set fire to their own homes.
“Many of the Rohingya who flooded into refugee camps in Bangladesh told of Myanmar soldiers shooting indiscriminately, burning their homes and warning them to leave or die. Others said they were attacked by Buddhist mobs.”
In announcing that Suu Kyi would take a pass on the U.N. General Assembly in New York, which opened Tuesday and is expected to run through Sept. 25, a spokesman for Myanmar’s presidential office said the decision was made for a number of reasons related to the ongoing situation in the troubled state.
“The first reason [Suu Kyi cannot attend] is because of the Rakhine terrorist attacks,” the spokesman, Zaw Htay, said in a news conference, according to The Associated Press. “The state counselor is focusing to calm the situation in Rakhine state. There are circumstances. The second reason is there are people inciting riots in some areas. We are trying to take care of the security issue in many other places. The third is that we are hearing that there will be terrorist attacks and we are trying to address this issue.”
Suu Kyi has been the subject of international opprobrium over her handling of the Rohingya minority in her country and her failure to speak out forcefully against the violence directed toward them. Zaw Htay said she planned to “speak for national reconciliation and peace” in a televised address to the nation on Sept. 19.
Primarily Muslim Bangladesh, which has frequently struggled to provide for its own population in times of need, is feeling the strain from the sudden crush of refugees. On a visit to Kutupalong refugee camp barely 2 miles from the border, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina urged to Myanmar to take back the Rohingya.
“In our parliament, we have taken a resolution that Myanmar should take all their citizens back to their country and create a congenial atmosphere so that they can go back,” Hasina said, according to Al-Jazeera.
International aid groups such as the Red Cross have been confronting the difficult task of tending to those crossing the border from Myanmar, averaging 20,000 a day.
“The needs are massive,” said Corinne Ambler, spokesperson for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, according to Al-Jazeera. “We are scaling up as fast as we can, but we need international assistance to help these people.”